Aspire, Perspire, Repeat

The role of motivation and goal-setting in education

Ambition in Educational Goals: Are There Limits?

Exploring whether dreams for higher education can be too big

We are often presented with the idea that we should dream big. “Shoot for the stars!” and other celestial-themed sayings (e.g., “The sky is the limit!”) are prominent in our culture’s inspirational vocabulary. What these sayings suggest is that our dreams should only be bound by our imagination of what and who we can become. As a result, we are open to virtually endless possibilities of our future selves, or so we think.

Some individuals may be more susceptible to idealistic thinking for the future than others. Due to changes in brain physiology and hormones, adolescents may be among the most likely to have ambitious and sometimes unrealistic dreams for the future in important life domains, such as education and career.

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Evidence for the ambitiousness of adolescents’ educational goals has been accumulating, suggesting that for various reasons, today’s adolescents are more ambitious than youth in previous decades. The trend is so robust that some suggest educational expectations are approaching a ceiling.1 This may seem counterintuitive at a time when our country is experiencing increasing economic inequality and students are facing financial and other barriers to attend college. Yet, we continue to see educational expectations increase, leading some to call today’s adolescents’ plans for the future “absurdly ambitious”.2

Rosenbaum termed this pervasive educational philosophy the “college-for-all” mentality.3 That is, virtually all young people today aspire to go to and graduate from college. Yet experience tells us this will not be the case for many young people, particularly those students who are first generation, low-income, or from groups traditionally underrepresented in academia. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education found an almost universal desire for students to attend some form of college (more than 90%), yet only slightly more than half of students (57%) actually enrolled in college and less than a third (29%) graduated college with a Bachelor’s degree.4

What happens to adolescents who have high educational goals yet do not fulfill them? What are the long-term consequences of dreaming big and failing? The answers to these questions have important implications for those who advise, counsel, and encourage today’s young people. Is it better to hold ambitious rather than realistic educational expectations, or vice-versa?

Psychological theories have different answers to these questions. A literature on optimistic biases suggests that ambitious goals promote high levels of attainment, well-being, and physical health via perseverance through difficulties.5,6,7

Motivational psychological theories suggest that holding onto overly ambitious goals, if not attained, may be detrimental.8 According to these theories, continuing to pursue goals after they are no longer feasible is associated with negative affect and worse physical health. Furthermore, it prevents the pursuit of new, more attainable goals.

Reynolds and Baird have used large, national datasets to analyze adolescents’ educational expectations.9,10 In one study, they compared those who had ambitious plans of attaining a college degree with those who had realistic plans of attaining no college degree. The results? Eight years after high school graduation, those who had unrealistic goals but failed had better psychological outcomes (greater self-esteem and mastery) than those who had more realistic plans. In a separate study, after accounting for years of schooling, the authors concluded that unrealized educational expectations were inconsequential for mental health, at least in terms of depressive symptoms.

What could be the reasoning behind similar long-term psychological outcomes for those who fail ambitious educational expectations and those who succeed? The most likely reason centers around individuals’ coping mechanisms after failure, particularly the use of compensatory strategies. These strategies reduce the negative impact of failure so that motivational resources and self-esteem are protected and new goals can be pursued.11 For example, after failing to meet a goal, an individual may devalue the initial goal or lower their expectations for the future. An individual may also protect the self from harm by averting self-blame or using downward social comparisons to bolster morale. In addition, young adults have numerous opportunities to exert control over their environments and pursue attractive alternative goals. Together, these factors begin to explain why failing to meet ambitious goals does not predict negative long-term mental health outcomes.

Although the debate is far from conclusive, it may be premature to counsel adolescents and young adults against dreaming big. The consequences of failing to meet ambitious dreams may not be as detrimental as we might think. 

What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you think overly ambitious educational (or career) goals are a problem for today’s young people?



1 Calahan, M., Ingels, S., Burns, L., Planty, M., & Daniel, B. (2006). United States high school sophomores: A twenty-two year comparison, 1980-2002. (Technical Report No. NCES 2006-327). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

2 Baird, C. L., Burge, S. W., & Reynolds, J. R. (2008). Absurdly ambitious? Teenagers’ expecations for the future and the realities of social structure. Sociology Compass, 2(3), 944-962.

3 Rosenbaum, J. E. (2001). Beyond college for all: Career paths for the forgotten half. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

4 US Department of Education. 2006. The condition of education 2006 (NCES 2006–071) [National Center for Education Statistics]. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

5 Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

6 Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 879-889.

7 Freund, A. M., & Baltes, P. B. (1998). Selection, optimization and compensation as strategies of life management: Correlations with subjective indicators of successful aging. Psychology and Aging, 13(4), 531-543.

8 Heckhausen, J., Wrosch, C., & Schulz, R. (2010). A motivational theory of life-span development. Psychological Review, 117(1), 32-60.

9 Reynolds, J. R., & Baird, C. L. (2007). The mental health consequences of unrealistic achievement expectations: Is it better to shoot for the stars or plan for the probable? Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, New York, NY.

10 Reynolds, J. R., & Baird, C. L. (2010). Is there a downside to shooting for the stars?: Unrealized educational expectations and symptoms of depression. American Sociological Review, 75(1), 151–172.

11 Heckhausen et al. (2010).


Brandilynn Villarreal, M.A., is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.


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